The Song of the Siren: when mermaids sing

E. S. Hardy, A Little Mermaid

“Bewitching, like the wanton mermaid’s song” Shakespeare, Venus & Adonis

By analogy with sirens, we are led to believe that mermaids have beautiful and enticing singing voices. Most of the British folklore evidence actually contradicts this: they are certainly alluring, though it seems to be their hair, their good looks and their topless state that generally draws men towards them.

Welsh folklorist Professor John Rhys was certain that mermaids were no singers. For example, he recounts the story of a Caernarfonshire fisherman who came across a mermaid in a cave. Translating (rather freely) from the original Welsh version published in Cymru Fu, Rhys describes how “at first she screeched wildly” when the man discovered her, but then calmed down and entered into a relationship with the human. The couple had children, but she never lost her close link to the sea, meaning that one time when they were out in a boat that was overtaken by a storm she was able to calm it by whispering to the waves. The storm was evidently of more than meteorological origin, because it was accompanied by “the most unearthly screeches and noises.”

Recounting the fate of a mermaid who became stranded on the shore at Conway and was left to die of exposure by the locals, Rhys quotes from a rhyme: “Y forforwyn ar y traeth/ Crio gwaeddu’n arw wnaeth.” He translates this as “The stranded mermaid on the beach/ Did sorely cry and sorely screech,” though the literal and less poetic version is “The mermaid on the beach / Crying, crying loudly.” (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, 1901, 117-119 & 199)

Rhys was evidently firmly convinced that mermaids are tuneless shriekers. This seems to have some echoes in an account from the Scottish island of Mull. In the waters around Mull there lives a ‘water witch’ (an cailleach uisge), a malign creature who is consciously contrasted in folklore to the mermaid (maighdean mara), a being who meant no harm. The cailleach is old and dresses in weeds, but her voice, apparently, sounds young. She ensures that she always sits with the light behind her, dazzling the observer, so that she seems young and attractive to that person. She is accompanied by two seal familiars, one black and one white (these would seem to be selkies, because one caught in the late eighteenth century fought her way out of the fishing net, leaving strands of a woman’s hair behind). If any man laughs at the cailleach’s song, the seals will upset his boat.

Whatever their musical accomplishments, on the Channel Island of Sark it was believed that the local mermaids would sit on rocks offshore and sing just before storms blew in, their voices attracting ships to veer too close to the coast. Conversely, there is a newspaper report I quote in my book Beyond Faery that described how mermaids were to be seen nightly at the mouth of the River Dee in Aberdeen, singing “harmonious lays” in their “charming, sweet, melodious voices.” Their performances concluded with God Save the King. Given that this was in 1688, the year of the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution,’ in which Protestant William of Orange dethroned Catholic James II, we must strongly suspect that a political statement was being made here under cover of a miraculous sighting. Whether the mermaids were Jacobite supporters isn’t clear.

Ulysses and the Sirens, 1909, by Herbert James Draper

The Sark tales, linking the songs to shipwrecks, are far more authentic sounding. For all their physical charms, mermaids tend to be deadly. Here are three Scottish examples of this. A Shetland man did a deal with a selkie, in which he would get a mermaid wife in return for giving the selkie a knife. The new wife was delivered, but she promptly drowned the man, whilst the selkie used the blade to cut all the fishing lines in the harbour.

On South Uist, a fishing crew spotted a mermaid. The Hebridean tradition was to throw items to her and Domhnall threw his knife. She caught this and dived out of sight. By taking his sacrifice, it was a sign that Domhnall would drown within the year- which he did. Lastly, on North Uist, a man walking home came across a mermaid on the shore who told him that he had to answer a question for her- or she would kill him. She asked “When were you in greatest danger?” He replied that there had been two occasions: when he was born and when he first learned to walk. Perhaps by boldly refusing to acknowledge that he was at that present moment in great peril, it seems he broke the spell. He was able to drive the mermaid off- very strangely and inexplicably by throwing a large round cheese at her head…

Alluring as they may be, the best advice always with the merfolk is to steer clear (often quite literally). Their love and their gifts are almost always perilous pleasures to enjoy; they may look like charming playmates- but beware…

Rosa Petherick, Mermaid playing

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